The Philosophy of Poetry

Poetry is the oldest form of literature which makes it a central aspect of the human condition. In this course we will consider a range of theories explaining why humans find poetry a compelling form in which to construct cultural meaning and personal self-expression. We will unpack poetic structure such as narrative; imagery; metaphor; and the differences between the Epic, Dramatic, and Lyric traditions. We will study the origins of poetry in different ancient cultures including the rich Asian tradition and the Hebrew tradition in the Old Testament Bible (Song of Songs and Psalms) amongst others. We will then turn to poetry’s connection to philosophy and explore issues such as the ontological nature of the universe; the workings of the human mind; reason and ethics.


  • Face-to-Face


  • Introduction - What is Poetry: There are many theories of why poetry can work its ‘magic’, why for example is Dylan Thomas’ poem Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night a more emotionally moving, memorable and philosophically more complex form, than a non-poetic statement such as: “you’re dying but don’t give up to easily”. Dylan Thomas’ treatment of the subject seems to have a profound insight embedded in it concerning an ethics of passionate living and fearless death, my version reads like rather annoying and banal platitude.
  • Features of Poetry - Structure, Poetic Space, Form: There are many formal elements which contribute to the workings of poetry: rhyme, rhythm, meter, tone, use of imagery and metaphor, all of these will be considered, though none by itself ‘explain’ poetry. Other important features are the working of repetition. Why is the “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” better than “Rage against….”, one answer to this issue concerns the creation of poetic space: The repetition works by extending the temporal dimension, which allows you to be in the rage longer.
  • Origins - Where and How and Why did Poetry Begin: What functions did poetry serve? We will consider poetry’s social functions as it begins to make the life of the community one of its important roles. This will include poetry’s political, religious, and personal forms. Poetry begins to explain the origins of the universe and the relationship of humans to the Gods, the community, and others, it also explores the personal life of the poet; their personal experiences and their attempt to understand thoughts and ideas.
  • Ancient Sources - The Wisdom Traditions: Many early societies understood the concept of ‘wisdom’ as the foundation of their practical morality. They praised and elevated wisdom through the person as a sage, holy man, or in the Greek tradition, finally as a philosopher. These traditions were often expressed in poetic form.
  • The Epic, Dramatic, and Lyric traditions: Examples will be given from: Early English (Beowulf); The Hebrew Old Testament; and Ancient Chinese.
  • Overview of the Rise of Romanticism: We will consider the philosophy, politics and literary theory of the period and their impact on Romantic poetry. Romanticism is a revolutionary movement and many of its best features are manifest in the dizzying number of wonderful poets from the late 18th c through to the end of the 19th c.
  • From Romanticism to Modernism: We will study the shift from romantic ideas of the self, social and political to the construction of the Modern self and its realization in poetry. Modernism is both a continuation and rejection of Romanticism.
  • Modernism to the Contemporary: Modernism is notoriously difficult to define, and in poetry often difficult to understand and interpret. We will look for its essential features and see the thematic, stylistic, and philosophical similarities, which define it as a movement.
  • Nature and Place: One of the most important themes in poetic history is the issue of Nature. We will consider the relationship between nature and place, for example Judith Wright’s evocation of Australia through its landscape: “clench down your strength, box-tree and ironbark/break with your violent root the virgin rock/draw from the flying dark its breath of dew/till the unloving come to life in you.” (Train Journey)
  • Beauty and Everyday Life: The objects of our everyday experience can be described in such a way that their beauty is made manifest; tea pots and garden sheds become objects of contemplation, or metaphors for complex emotions. Margaret Atwood puts menace in the ordinary in her poem Up: “It’s something about the crumpled sheets/ hanging over the edge like jungle foliage/ the terry slippers gaping/ their dark pink mouths for your feet”. The ability to animate the everyday world of our experience and make it extraordinary in its ordinariness is one of the wonderful talents of the poet.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Have an understanding of the concepts and ideas in the philosophy of Poetry.
  2. Gain a better knowledge of the history of poetry.
  3. Appreciate the complexities of poetic from and meaning.
  4. Hopefully have discovered many wonderful poems which you had not read before.

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